West coast fatalities force rethink on rail staff safety

The safety of workers on the UK’s railways has been thrust
sharply into the spotlight following the deaths in February of four workers on
the west coast mainline near Tebay on the edge of the Lake District.

Initial investigations by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), British
Transport Police and the Railway Inspectorate revealed that although the wagon
was fitted with brakes, they were not functioning properly.

As a result of the fatalities, Network Rail insisted that the brakes on all
such trailers are thoroughly tested prior to use. In addition, it has
stipulated that metal wedges be used in front and behind any decoupled unit.
The trailer involved in the incident had been held in place by wooden blocks.

However, the RMT union, which represents rail maintenance workers, has
called for a blanket ban on the use of the wagons until the investigations are

The four fatalities were part of a group of 10 maintenance staff working on
the line. Three others were injured.

Concerns have also been raised over new safety helmets that may have meant
they could not hear the approaching wagon.

Ironically, in February, the HSE published a new volume of its Railway
Safety Principles and Guidance series looking at the safe movement of trains.

In a series of unrelated incidents earlier in February, Network Rail’s
infrastructure division was fined £20,000 for failing to inspect lineside
fencing near Windsor, Berkshire, where, a year earlier a US serviceman was struck
and killed by a train.

Also in February, Network Rail and Balfour Beatty’s rail infrastructure arm
were fined £300,000 after a four year-old was electrocuted on a live rail at
Strood, Kent in 1999.

New statistics published by the HSE have shown that slips, trips and falls
remain the most common cause of injuries on the railways.

From April 2002 to the end of March 2003, slips, trips or falls resulted in
86 major injuries to staff and 460 passenger injuries requiring hospital

A further 1,199 passengers were admitted to hospital following accidents on
stairs and escalators at stations, including two deaths.

On 16 March, the Railway Inspectorate is holding a free, one-day seminar to
raise awareness about this issue.

The seminar takes place at the National Railway Museum in York. For further
details call Jill Moore, on 0161 952 8358.

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